Review: The Hunt for Red October
I’ve said it here before—I’m a sucker for submarine movies. Das Boot, U-571, Crimson Tide, K-19: The Widowmaker, Hunter Killer . . . I’m game for them all. If the movie takes place aboard, or features a lot of action inside, a sub—preferably one from the modern era—I’m all in. The tension of trying to slip past a boat actively searching for you, the pings of active sonar and the splashes of depth charges, the sounds of torpedoes streaking by as they narrowly miss, and the near inevitable moment when someone has to have a hatch closed on them to keep the sub from flooding . . .
And to the list of the best modern submarine films, you’d have to include The Hunt for Red October, based on Tom Clancy’s first book of the same name. For its 30th anniversary, Red October has been given a new 4K HDR release, which is available
on physical media as well as for download from Kaleidescape.
What makes Red October different from your typical sub movie is that while there is some action—a handful of torpedo launches and a gunfight—the movie isn’t really about subs shooting at each other, or about a sub in some kind of trouble, stranding men in a confined and water-filling coffin, but really more a tense spy thriller that happens to revolve around—and take place aboard—submarines, as well as the mental chess match between the two principal actors.
Red October—both the book and the film—introduced the world to Jack Ryan, an aspiring CIA analyst with expertise in the machinations of the Soviet system, who eventually worked his way up to being a pretty capable field officer, and ultimately becoming President of the United States in the Clancy literary universe. Ryan has (so far) been
RED OCTOBER AT A GLANCE
This classic light-on-gunplay-and-torpedoes Jack Ryan spy thriller gets a 30th-anniversary 4K HDR upgrade.
While much of the film looks terrific, particularly closeups of the actors and shots aboard the USS Dallas, the video quality is uneven throughout.
The 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master mix is true to the original film while delivering quite a bit of excitement in a modern home theater, although the bass is pretty mild by contemporary standards.
portrayed by no less than five different A-list actors, including Harrison Ford (Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger), Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears), Chris Pine (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), and John Krasinski (Amazon’s Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series).
Taking up the mantle for this first film was Alec Baldwin, who was a perfect choice to play the everyman Ryan totally out of his depth being called to leave the desk and take his analysis into the field, face-to-face with the enemy. Ryan is someone far more likely to outwit an opponent with his mind than to engage him with his fists or a gun, and Baldwin handled the role perfectly, and it was disappointing he didn’t return to reprise him in future films.
Set in 1984, the Soviet Union launches a new Typhoon-class nuclear missile submarine named “Red October” captained by veteran sailor, Marko Ramius (Sean Connery). The October is fitted with an advanced prototype “caterpillar” drive that uses a hydro-propulsion system that will make it virtually undetectable by traditional means, letting it creep up off the coast of a city and unleash its payload without any time to respond. While on a routine patrol, Jonesy (Courtney B. Vance), a star sonar operator aboard the USS Dallas, a USS Los Angeles-class attack submarine, picks up the Red October as it is putting to sea, tracking it for a while before it suddenly disappears. When news about the October’s capabilities are known, USS Dallas’ skipper, Captain Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn), receives orders to relocate the October, track her, and remain in position to destroy her if need be.
Simultaneously, the Soviet government launches nearly its entire naval fleet out to sea. Is it an unannounced exercise? A rescue mission? Or a prelude to war?
After briefing Admiral James Greer (James Earl Jones), Ryan brings his analysis to the Joint Chiefs, positing that he believes Ramius is not looking to start a war but rather looking to defect. Unsure of the Russians’ intentions, and with a lot of US naval assets headed towards confrontation, National Security Adviser Jeffrey Pelt (Richard Jordan) believes Ryan’s postulation enough to give him three days to confirm his theory. This puts Ryan on a flight out to an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic, where he must convince Admiral Painter (Fred Thompson) to get him aboard the Dallas to make contact with Ramius. Meanwhile, the US fleet is in a race to intercept and engage Ramius before the Russian navy can find and destroy him. Of course, the Soviet Union is not going to sit idly by while a rogue captain hands over a multi-billion-dollar flagship submarine to its enemy, so how to solve the issue of getting hold of the submarine while it is being hunted and make the Russians believe it was destroyed?
Red October holds up remarkably well even after 30 years. Sure, some of the tech (primarily the screens aboard the subs) looks dated, but the story is still tense and believable. One thing that did take me out of the film a bit more on this viewing is the almost total lack of Russian accents by the actors portraying Soviets. Of course, Connery has his classic Scottish brogue, making no effort to conceal it, but even others (Tim Curry, Stellan Skarsgard, Sam Neill) just don’t sound Russian. The film does use an interesting “device” to switch from actors speaking Russian with subtitles to speaking English, but I can’t help but think that if they remade the film today, it would have a more “authentic” Russian crew.
Originally filmed in 35mm, this transfer is taken from a new, true 4K digital intermediate with a new HDR color grade. While many parts of the film look terrific, and have clean, sharp, defined edges and detail—particularly closeups of the actors, or shots aboard the USS Dallas—video quality is really uneven throughout.
The opening had a lot of noise and grain and just general lack of detail, and if I didn’t know better, I would have thought I was watching a Blu-ray version of the film for much of it. (I actually checked my processor to make sure it was receiving 4K HDR content.) But the best-looking images snap you back to just how good the film can look. And then there are other scenes—such as when Ryan is briefing the Joint Chiefs—which were so badly focused and lacking in details they rivaled VHS quality, especially apparent when blown up to my 115-inch screen.
The filmmakers differentiate the look of the interiors aboard the Red October and the Dallas, not only through the set design but also the lighting, and it is almost as if they used different cameras or lenses for these shots. The October never looks as sharp or detailed as the Dallas, which just looks cleaner and clearer.
There is a series of green graphic overlays that appears throughout the film, and these look bright, crisp and sharp. But the traditional white subtitles during the opening—when the Russian crew is speaking Russian-are blurrier, though near the
end these subtitles also look sharpened and cleaned up as well.
The HDR grade isn’t too aggressive, but it does a nice job of giving some extra pop to all the screens and buttons aboard the subs, as well as deeper, more realistic blacks throughout, and some bright glints and highlights off the equipment inside the subs or on the medals worn by sailors. We also get some nice depth of color when the sub is rigged for red, or the flashing yellow alarm lights. There were a couple of underwater shots that exhibited a slight bit of banding, and some of the visual effects shots of torpedoes or green screen had a bit of white edging.
Red October received three Academy Awards nominations, including Sound and Sound Effects Editing (for which it won), and the 4K release includes a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master mix that is both true to the original while delivering quite a bit of excitement in a modern home theater. I watched with DTS: Neural X upmixing engaged on my Marantz processor, and the film provided a surprising amount of atmospherics and immersion.
From the get-go, you are surrounded by the sounds of winds swirling and rain pouring overhead. Then aboard the subs, we get the sounds of humming
machinery, crew noises, hatches opening/closing, etc. Other moments, like the pressure crushing in on the hull of the Dallas as it makes a deep dive with pops and groans of the metal, or the sounds of a helicopter hovering overhead, or the loud ping from active sonar scans, or the zip of torpedoes streaking past, all help to put you right into the action. I actually had the opportunity to spend a night aboard an active aircraft carrier, and the sounds of flight ops and the steam-powered catapult launch system were spot on.
Bass is pretty mild by modern standards, but we do get a bit of subwoofer involvement when torpedoes detonate, or the low hum of engines running.
While this new transfer isn’t without some flaws, it is still the best we’ve had at home, and remains a fun, exciting night at the movies, with a PG rating appropriate for all members of the family. With a lack of new releases on the horizon, The Hunt for Red October is a classic that is certainly worth revisiting.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.